"That’s a place you must earn."

Do corporate communications leaders have what it takes to become executive leaders for the 21st century?

Luca Biondolillo is an outspoken proponent for the need to step up as communicators to the challenges and demands of modern business management: as he tells Communication Director, demonstrable business knowledge, intensive stakeholder engagement and willingness “to get your hands dirty” are some of the qualities necessary to earn the respect of the executive team.

Luca Biondolillo at the 2016 European Communication Summit / Photo: Bernal Revert

At last year’s European Communication Summit you moderated a main stage panel on leadership and the communications function. One of the themes that emerged from that discussion was that, historically, there hasn’t been sufficient investment in the corporate communications function. Do you agree with that and why do you think that is?

As communicators and heads of the function, we may be at least partly at fault for this. Too often, too many of us have failed to make serving the objectives of the business part of our job. Instead they stay focused more generally on the traditional communications objectives – publicity, visibility, reputation management. In certain organisations, within certain business contexts, this means our function is seen as less relevant, and as a result, in the eyes of those who hold the purse, less deserving of funds and resources. I hope this is not news to the majority of my peers.

How do communicators compensate for this lack of care?

The old school thought was that to fly high in communications and stay at a high level, you didn’t need to get deep into the business, or that getting deep into the business was the responsibility of some of the people who worked for you. You needed to stay focused on leading the big teams. In reality, even the heads of the function need to get under the skin of the business. We need to work next to the business leaders. That is the only way you can really operate communications in a way that supports the business as much as possible. It's the only way in which you can claim the right to either sit on executive committees or similar functions.

You need to do this not only to learn their part of the business but also to earn their goodwill, so your function has an opportunity to be called in, if not first then among the first: every time there is a new project, every time there is a change in strategy, or every time a business leader, whether it is the CEO or the head of the business unit, is looking to put together a team to help him or her drive home that specific result, that specific change or specific objective.

Is experience in financial communications then an essential prerequisite for communicators aspiring to the top?

That’s a little narrow as a statement. In other words, an understanding of the financials more than experience in financial communications is definitely key, just as much as business acumen. If you think about the more prominent communicators across Europe, some come from really diverse backgrounds. Some are engineers. Some are other things that have nothing to do with an understanding of finance. Yet overtime, they dedicated time to understanding those points as well.

Luca moderated the Leadership in Communications panel at the European Communication Summit 2016: see it in full above

So it’s a case of gaining rich experiences?

Going forward there is more reason to bring some of these aspects of stakeholder engagement under the same umbrella. If you look at investor relations, that’s working with the financial community, with analysists, portfolio managers and banks. If you look at public affairs, that’s working with public institutions, with government, with various entities at that level. Then of course, communications per se has an even broader set of internal and external stakeholders. At the end of the day, all three disciplines are about stakeholder engagement. To me it would make sense at some stage to see these three disciplines all under one simple umbrella.

It’s about talking the same messages. It’s about being aligned on all fronts, whether it’s internal or external. Whether it’s the financial community or it’s the consumer media, whether it’s talking to political institutions or with influencers at that level. More often than not today, with our separate functions, corporations miss out on the opportunity to really leverage the advantages this could bring to the table.

"CEOs... are increasingly looking for stronger communication, corporate affairs or stakeholder engagement professionals."

That came across quite strongly in the Summit panel discussion, the feeling that communicators haven’t quite stepped up to the full potential of their strategic role.

Again, it is partially our fault. How many communicators out there really have a decent understanding of numbers? This is not about taking the role of head of investor relations away from somebody else. It's simply bringing that person, that role, that team under the same umbrella – because it is obvious that much like the other areas of communication, you absolutely need a specialist in one specific area of stakeholder engagement. It makes sense to have this is under one single umbrella. But you need to have at the head of this umbrella a chief engagement officer who has an understanding of the dynamics of the financial market and of the financials of the organisation they work for.

Obviously this person needs to be humble enough to not want to be the front person of the organisation for everything related to financial matters because the specialist in this particular case will probably be more prepared for the day to day handling of certain specific activities. The role of the chief stakeholder engagement officer or corporate affairs officer will be that of looking after the strategy and the vision, to make sure that what the business needs is being delivered through all of these channels with various degrees of support.

Should this be the case in publically-held companies as much as in private companies?

Yes. Sometimes what you disclose is just as important as what you don’t disclose because you are a public company and you need even more of an alignment and sometimes it will be helpful to disclose some numbers and some figures. Something that, depending on the fields your organisation is present in, will be helpful to reputation, your relationship with your partners, the relationship with your suppliers, attracting and retaining talent to your organisation and so forth.

An important part of this must be the relationship between the corporate affairs officer and the CEO, correct?

Having a good relationship with your CEO or with your chairman is obviously an important element. But equally as important is the business acumen we were talking about, an in depth understanding of the business – not just overall but of all the elements that can affect the performance of the business – so that as a communicator you can effectively support the business itself. This is what we need to strive for. You will create a strong relationship with the CEO if you are a leader on all of these other points.

In other words, building a relationship with management is determined by your ability to deliver on these points, more so today than any point in time before. In general, CEOs are no longer as interested in their own visibility or image, they are increasingly looking for stronger communication, corporate affairs or stakeholder engagement professionals next to them who can be a key element in driving support for the business.

"This isn’t something that you are owed. Rather it’s something you need to earn day in and day out."

Another theme that emerged in the talk was that the chief communications officer should act as a conduit for outside trends and developments that are taking place in society and explaining those within the organisation. What do you think about that idea?

It brings us back to something we were discussing before. Much like consumer research should be part of marketing as research drives decisions of investment and such, in communications and stakeholder engagement, it’s the intelligence gathering and the analysis of this intelligence, whether it’s coming from the media, from investors and equity analysists or other sources such as the legislative monitoring that you need to have in place to have an effective public affairs function.

These are all intelligence gathering points from within the stakeholders’ communities that the corporate affairs officers should be engaging with. As a result, one of your duties should be gathering, analysing and providing the business with the elements of intelligence to help it make the right decision, or even better, taking the cues that are then important to inspiring the strategy of the organisation going forward.

Again the strategic potential of the communicator seems to be the crux of the matter.

My point is that this is something for a communicator to earn and it is clear what you need to have in terms of skills. Sometimes the question is why I am not getting a call to that meeting, to that table, to that board? This isn’t something that anyone owes to communications. For sure, communications has the potential key element in the overall running of the business. The day-to-day running, supporting business objectives and providing key background and intelligence information that can help management form the ongoing strategy of the organisation you work for. The key point here is, that’s a place you must earn.

What else can help communicators earn that place?

Overall leadership traits is another element that is not only going to help you reach executive level, but assist you in putting across your point of view to the other executives around that table. You need to learn how to get your message across in a way so that whoever is listening – whether it’s a single executive or a group – understands your perspective. This help to prove that the particular element that you bring to the table can be fundamental in achieving results, supporting strategy and so on. This isn’t something that you are owed. Rather it’s something you need to earn day in and day out at that table, because that’s exactly what all of the other executives do. Too often, we just expect that people understand the importance of communication. You need to demonstrate it to them with facts first and with your willingness to get your hands dirty, to really get into the business and help, no matter how small the issue may be. If you are not able to communicate your point to the executives in the organisation then how effective a communicator do you think your company peers – the other members of the management team – are going to think you are externally?

Luca Biondolillo

As chief communications officer for MSC Cruises, Luca Biondolillo has global responsibility for corporate and financial communications, consumer PR, employee engagement, executive positioning, crisis and issues management, corporate and consumer events, sustainability as well as institutional and public aff airs. Before joining MSC Cruises, Luca was head of corporate communications and public affairs at multinational fashion and consumer goods business Benetton Group, a role he took on in 2011. Prior to that, he worked for eyewear giant Luxottica, first as group director of corporate and financial communications in Milan and later as group senior vice president, international communication in New York City. Among other roles, he is a member of the board and vice president of the European Association of Communication Directors as well as a member of the Arthur W. Page Society.